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Are designers the new puppet masters?

by | Jun 15, 2016 | Daily Life

So you think you made that decision on your own? Okay, if you say so.

Alot of time and energy is spent trying to convince people to adopt new behaviors, such as better eating habits, saving more money for retirement, or using seat belts.

But in the end often what makes people behave differently isn’t that they suddenly had a light bulb go off and adopted the belief that the convincers wanted. Rather they were induced, coerced, or outright forced to, by design.

Don’t be a dummy

Take those seat belts as an example. For decades there were public service announcements with crash test dummies telling us that using seat belts saves lives. Then one by one many states adopted seat belt laws, realizing that no matter how logical it was to wear something that may keep you from flying out of a windshield, many people still didn’t do it. So the laws came with punishments, mostly small dollar amounts, but over time they have grown to be somewhat substantial. And seat belt use has risen in many of those places.

Adding to the introduction of laws, has been the warnings installed in modern automobiles…you know that often incredibly annoying and never-ending beep telling you that somebody is not buckled-up.

If you you took a poll, most people will say they wear seat belts because they save lives…which is true, and also happens to be the answer that makes a person look smart and conscientious. But, ask the same question and do it anonymously, and at least some of those people would say that they don’t want to get a ticket, or keep hearing that intrusive beep, and would choose not to wear a seat belt if they didn’t have to.

While the automobile warning is clearly a designed feature, it’s not as common to think of a law as a design tool, but that is exactly what it is. A law guides people into a desired behavior, and in that sense, is no different than designing the layout of a grocery store to get people to buy things they didn’t even come in for.

There’s a lot of research that shows getting people to adopt a behavior is faster and easier than getting them to adopt the attitude or belief behind the behavior. You see it with smoking…patches, gums, e-cigs…are tools used to help people stop smoking quickly – which is the change in BEHAVIOR. After being smoke-free for a long enough period of time, the thought of smoking again becomes so disgusting that most quitters never want to start again – the change in ATTITUDE toward smoking follows the behavior of quitting.

Save for a rainy day

Another example is how a growing number of companies automatically enroll employees in retirement programs like 401ks, requiring the employees to OPT-OUT as opposed to OPT-IN. Everybody knows that if they want to retire and not end up living on the streets, they need to save money, and yet many of us don’t. So employers, with some incentives of their own of course, take the decision to start saving off worker’s plates, following the concept that they won’t miss what they never saw, namely that percentage of pay automatically going into the retirement accounts. Again, this is design…constructing a situation that leads to a desired result..without the need for spending time trying to persuade or convince people that they need to save.

And it’s that saving of time and money on convincing that can be of great value, especially to a small business or nonprofit with limited means to browbeat their audiences with a message that ultimately may fall on deaf ears anyway. Notice how many public TV stations now offer a “sustaining membership”, which is really just a perpetual auto-draft out of a bank account each month, that will continue until such time as the subscriber cancels it. This “behavior over attitude” maneuver takes the annual “please donate again” persuasion letter out of the equation.

Like many things in neuroscience and human behavior, the effectiveness of such design tactics are often tied to whether people recognize they are being exposed to them, and if that recognition causes them to behave differently.

And that opens up a whole different discussion on what happens when people get smarter about such things…and whether is it possible there are some out there who hope that never happens. Stay tuned…we’ll tackle those big questions in the near future…but for now…keep two hands on the wheel and buckle-up…the road of life gets bumpy.

Robert Westfall

Robert is a writer, behavorial researcher and decision-making consultant. He is the founder of Instinct, a firm specializing in helping organizations be more human focused and planet conscious.  You can learn more about his work at www.TheHumanInstinct.com and follow him at twitter.com/WeAreInstinct

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Remember when things just seemed to work? Yeah, neither do we.

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